STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) -No, it's not the NCAA tournament, but Penn State will gladly take a trip to the NIT semifinals.
Every win - even if it's in the tournament known as college basketball's postseason consolation prize - builds confidence in a program that has struggled to maintain success, at a school better known for its wildly popular football team.
``I don't know if you can really compare it to the NCAAs. That was a big goal for us,'' senior forward Jamelle Cornley said Wednesday before getting treatment for his injured left shoulder. ``But from a senior standpoint, if you're not going to end your career in the NCAA tournament, what better way to go out than in Madison Square Garden?''
Cornley, as usual, was the engine that got Penn State (25-11) going inside in a 71-62 win Tuesday night at Florida that clinched a trip to the NIT semifinals next week in New York. Even a balky bandage strapped to the bum shoulder couldn't hold Cornley back.
' he said.
Don't think, though, that Penn State's recent success makes up for the snub from the NCAAs. Both Cornley and coach Ed DeChellis would rather be playing in the more important tournament.
But, even if they had made the NCAA field, the Nittany Lions would have likely ended up a No. 12 or No. 11 seed and drawn a tough first-round assignment.
Victory wouldn't have been out of the question - for instance, No. 12 Arizona made it to the NCAA Sweet 16 this year - though Penn State had a far better chance playing deeper into March in the NIT.
That's exactly what the Nittany Lions have done. DeChellis especially likes how Penn State's victory over SEC stalwart Florida on the road came on national television, drawing more exposure to his upstart program.
The victory allowed Penn State to tie the school record for wins set in 1989-90.
``I don't know if you want to go the NCAAs and leave early, but I think the TV coverage (in the NIT) has been really positive,'' DeChellis said. ``We're able to win more games in postseason play, playing on the road, and the TV coverage.''
Then there's the added benefit of more big-game experience for younger players like point guard Talor Battle, a sophomore who has emerged as a team leader.
are among the first subs off the bench.
The NIT could provide a dry run for next season when the younger players hope to step up to the NCAA tournament.
``It's an important phase or step in what we're trying to do and grow as a program,'' DeChellis said. ``When we didn't get selected, our focus was, 'Let's try to get a championship in a national tourney, try to win a championship.' ... They've bought into that right away like they have all year.''
It's taken a while to build that confidence at Penn State, where playing this deep into March is rare.
The last NCAA tournament appearance was in 2001, when the Nittany Lions upset North Carolina to get to the regional semis.
DeChellis arrived in 2003. He got the school to the NIT in 2006 but lost a first-round home game to Rutgers. Penn State slipped to 11-19 the following season and improved to 15-16 during an injury-played season last year.
Things have changed this season.
``There are some guys, who aren't here anymore, they had attitudes of, 'Why we had to do this, or why we had to do that?' It wasn't because the coaches said so, or it was the right thing to do,'' said fifth-year senior guard Danny Morrissey. At 24, he's the oldest player on the squad.
ort of a culture of change, but the winning goes with it and the winning helps.''
So the Nittany Lions will take a brief breather and hit the books before returning to practice. A win in the NIT semifinals on March 31 would send Penn State to the finals on April 2.
``I think most of us are trying to catch up on homework, and even trying to get ahead,'' Cornley said. ``We plan on being in New York for close to a week.''

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